Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Martyrs of America

I wrote a week or so ago about some English martyrs, but I’ve been reading lately about the martyrs of North America, and there’s something more to say. All of those I’ve read about recently have been Jesuits. Now they certainly don’t have a monopoly on martyrdom, but they have undeniably produced a number of holy, fearless, and heroic servants of God and the Church. I’m not sure why I’ve been reading the lives of martyrs lately. Maybe the Lord is trying to show me that I’m still a marshmallow—or that neither my love nor my sufferings even approach that of many of his faithful servants.

The book I’m reading is Saints of the American Wilderness, by John A. O’Brien. The subtitle tells you what it is about: The Brave Lives and Holy Deaths of the Eight North American Martyrs. I’ve only read about three so far: SS. Isaac Jogues, René Goupil, and Jean de Lalande. I must admit that I wept, rather unexpectedly, over the sufferings of St. Isaac Jogues. It is incredible, not only what he suffered—and his super-human endurance—but his love for the Lord that kindled all his heroic efforts to evangelize and baptize the often savage and superstitious tribes in what is now New England and Eastern Canada. I will share a bit of it here.

“The Iroquois…leaped on the priest [Jogues] and beat him with fists, clubs and sticks until he fell unconscious. When he came to, they bit out his fingernails and chewed his two forefingers… A few of the Hurons [who, with Jogues, were captured by the Iroquois] had not been baptized, and some now wished to receive the sacrament. Jogues completed their instruction, with his mangled fingers squeezed water from his wet clothing, and baptized them. ‘Put your trust in God,’ he admonished them. ‘He will give you the courage to endure this ordeal… Blessed be His Holy Name forever.’

“The wounds of Jogues and the two Frenchmen were putrefying by then, and their condition was intensified by the swarming mosquitoes… Some of the braves approached them in their exhausted condition and proceeded to pluck out their hair and beards and to drive their long fingernails into the most sensitive parts of their bodies… On the eighth day of their journey…Jogues was placed last in line and was beaten with such fury that, drenched in blood, he fell stunned. They dragged him to the top of the hill… Jogues was led to a platform where they again beat and stabbed him, mangled his fingers and thrust burning sticks against his arms and thighs…

“The crowd surged up on the platform and beat and stabbed the prisoners. A sorcerer approached [Jogues] and cried, ‘I hate this one most of all.’ With that, he commenced to gnaw his fingers. Next, he ordered…a prisoner of the Mohawks to saw off Jogues’ left thumb with a jagged shell… The prisoners then were placed in one of the houses, each of them stretched on his back, his limbs extended, his wrists and ankles bound fast to stakes driven into the earthen floor… They placed live coals on their naked bodies…

“While Jogues was still there, four fresh Huron captives were brought to the platform for the customary treatment. In spite of his pain and exhaustion, Jogues took the opportunity to convert them. An ear of green corn had been thrown to him for food, and he found a few raindrops clinging to the husk. With these he baptized two of the Hurons… He was made a beast of burden; heavy loads were place on his bruised shoulders, and he was compelled to tramp fifty, seventy, a hundred miles after the Indians… His wounds were gangrened, his bare feet left tracks of blood on snow and ice, the deerskin he wore was alive with vermin…”

Those are just a few snippets of his sufferings. But his sheer endurance is not the most amazing thing. You read how in the midst of all that he was still evangelizing and baptizing. In all this, he could only think of God and of his unworthiness to serve Him. After his thumb had been cut off, “Isaac picked it up and, as he later wrote, ‘I presented it to Thee, O my God, in remembrances of the sacrifices which for the last seven years I had offered on the altars of Thy Church, and as an atonement for the want of love and reverence of which I have been guilty in touching Thy Sacred Body.’” In his agony, instead of crying out for deliverance, he offered his suffering in reparation for not being wholly reverent and loving at certain moments when offering the Mass! How many people today touch his Sacred Body in the Eucharist while in a state of sin, and think nothing of it! These are the kinds of things that make me weep. What about my own “want of love and reverence” over the past 15 years at the altar? If I were being tortured, would I humbly offer my sufferings in reparation for this?

For Isaac Jogues, Christ was everything. He lived his whole life with burning love for his Lord and Savior, and he labored tirelessly, heroically, to bring as many to Him as possible. Another incredible thing. Through a complicated series of circumstances and more sufferings, he managed to get on a boat and go back to France. Did he spend the rest of his life there healing his wounds and his nightmarish memories? No, within a few months he was on a boat back to the very place he had left! Like Elijah, he was full of jealous zeal for the Lord of Hosts, that is, if there was a single soul left in the most desolate wilderness, he would go there to preach the Gospel, baptize, and teach the true faith.

It was not too long after having arrived again, that one of the tribes broke a peace treaty, captured Jogues, beat and tortured him again, and finally buried a tomahawk in his brain and beheaded him, thus ending the earthly life of a great soldier of Christ. With what joy he must have been received into the Kingdom of Heaven! When I think of Isaac Jogues and other martyrs like him, I think of what the Letter to the Hebrews says about the saints of the Old Testament: “The world was not worthy of them” (11:38).

We may be intimidated by the specter of his horrifying sufferings, yet it is not our threshold of pain that is the issue, but rather our love for the Lord. I’ve been grumbling about the intense heat wave we’ve been enduring here for a couple weeks (went up to 115), but St. Isaac would have cheerfully continued his work, happy only to be a servant of such a blessed and loving Master. There’s so much we can do for the Lord and offer to Him, just in the context of daily life. We are called to a daily martyrdom of patience, forgiveness, labor, and faithfulness to the word of God.

How much do we recognize and value the gifts God has given us, primarily in his Son who suffered unspeakable tortures as well as bearing the infinitely greater burden of our sins? With what reverence (or lack of it) do we approach the Holy Eucharist? What price are we willing to pay to ensure our fidelity to the commandments of the Lord? How weak and selfish and petty do we look in the face of those who gave their all for Jesus? What are our priorities in life? “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ…” (Phil. 3:8-9). St. Paul must have been proud of Isaac Jogues. What would he think of you and me? Holy Martyrs, pray to God for us!